A fatal flaw in Afghan peace process
With the reported intra-Afghan talks under the mediation of Saudi Arabia in Mecca on September 24-27, attention inevitably shifts to the hidden aspects of the "war on terror" in Afghanistan - the geopolitics of the war. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has committed to pulling out Canadian troops from Afghanistan in 2011, let the cat out of the bag last week when he said that some Western leaders wrongly believed North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops could stay there forever.
"One of the things I disagree with some other Western leaders is that our [NATO] plan can be somehow to stay in Afghanistan militarily indefinitely," Harper said during a televised election campaign debate in Ottawa. What lends particular importance to Harper's statement is that he has shifted from his earlier position that Canada wouldn't leave Afghanistan until that country was able to cope for itself.
He stressed the importance of a timeline for the NATO presence in Afghanistan, "If we are to truly pacify that country and see its evolution ... we won't achieve such a target unless we actually set a deadline and work to meet it ... If we never leave, will the job ever get done?" Harper revealed he had made this point to both US presidential candidates, Democratic Senator Barack Obama and Republican Senator John McCain.
The Saudi role in mediating the intra-Afghan talks will bring to the fore the geopolitics of the Afghan war. This is already evident from the contradictory reports regarding the talks in Mecca.
There is acute embarrassment in Kabul that any premature leak may only help undercut further the credibility of the political edifice housing President Hamid Karzai. Kabul took the easy route by refusing to acknowledge that any talks took place during the Iftar in Mecca.
CNN broke the story in a London datelined report on Monday quoting authoritative sources that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hosted high-level talks in Mecca between the Afghan government and Taliban who "are severing their ties with al-Qaeda".
The quibbling by the Kabul spokesman is typically Afghan. Can a get-together in the nature of the Iftar, the meal that breaks the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, be construed as "peace talks"? The answer is "yes" and "no". On one plane, the gathering was a "guest celebration", as explained by the colorful former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and a Guantanamo Bay detainee, Abdul Salam Zaeef, who sat in the important religious meal in Mecca.
But on the other hand, the hard facts are the following. Saudi Arabia is a leader of the Sunni Muslim world. It was one of the handful of countries to have recognized the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It was the Saudi king who hosted the religious meal, which was attended by Taliban representatives, Afghan government officials and a representative of the powerful mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Former Afghan Supreme Court chief justice, Fazel Hadi Shinwari, was among the government representatives at the Iftar. The Afghan army chief of general staff, General Bismillah Khan, also "happened" to be in Saudi Arabia at this time.
Furthermore, as CNN put it, quoting sources, the meal in Mecca took two years of "intense behind-the-scenes negotiations" to come to fruition and "US-and-Europe-friendly Saudi Arabia's involvement has been propelled by a mounting death toll among coalition troops amid a worsening violence that has also claimed many civilian casualties".
Besides, media reports have spotted that behind the Saudi move lingers the recognizable shadows of the controversial former Saudi spy chief and nephew of the king, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who is an old "Afghan hand", having headed Saudi Arabia's al-Mukhabarat al A'amah (General Intelligence Directorate) during the 25-year period from 1977 until shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US. Some even say Turki secretly negotiated with Taliban leader Mullah Omar in 1998 in a vain attempt to have Osama bin Laden extradited to Saudi Arabia.
Above all, there has been a spate of statements in recent days underscoring the futility of the war in Afghanistan. Karzai himself has invited Mullah Omar to step forward as a presidential hopeful in elections slated for next year.
Britain's military commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Mark Carleton-Smith told the Sunday Times newspaper of London that the war against the Taliban cannot be won. He specifically advised the British public not to expect a "decisive military victory", but to prepare for a possible deal with the Taliban. "We're not going to win this war. It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army," the British commander said.
The British army top brass is not known to speak out of turn. His stark assessment followed the leaking of a memo detailing a gloomy statement attributed to the British ambassador in Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, that the current war strategy was "doomed to fail". To say the least, the timing of these statements is highly significant. According to the influential Saudi newspaper Asharq Alawsat, British intelligence is ably assisting the Saudi efforts at mediation.
Longtime observers of the Afghan civil war will recollect the tortuous diplomatic and political peregrinations culminating in the Geneva Accords in April 1988 that led to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Informal negotiations began as early as 1982. That is to say, claims and counter-claims, constant streams of denials, statements attributed to faceless or anonymous sources, even stony silence if not outright falsification - all this promises to be the fare in the Afghan bazaar in the coming weeks.
However, what is beyond doubt is that inter-Afghan peace talks have finally begun. There is a readiness to admit that the legacy of the Bonn conference in December 2001 must be exorcised from Afghanistan's body politic and stowed away in history books. The recognition seems to have dawned that peace is indivisible and victors must learn to share it with the vanquished.
Several factors have contributed to this realization. One, the seven-year war is in a stalemate and time favors the Taliban. Two, the US is increasingly focused on the bailout of its economy, which leaves little scope both in terms of time and resources for Washington to indulge in the extravaganza of undertaking on its own open-ended wars in faraway badlands. Three, the US is having a hard time persuading its allies to provide troops for the war effort and even faithful allies like Britain seem fatigued and appear uneasy about the US's war strategy. Four, whatever little popular support the puppet regime in Kabul headed by Karzai enjoyed so far is fast declining, which makes the current setup unsustainable. Five, the Taliban have gained habitation and name on the Afghan landscape and no amount of allegations regarding Pakistan's dubious role can hide the reality that the Taliban's support base is rapidly widening. Six, the regional climate - growing instability in Pakistan, tensions in US-Russia relations, NATO's role, Iran's new assertiveness, including possible future support of the Afghan resistance - is steadily worsening and the need arises for the US to recalibrate the prevailing geopolitical alignments and shore up its political and strategic assets created during the 2001-2008 period from being eroded.
Against such a complex backdrop, Washington could - and perhaps should - have logically turned to the United Nations or the international community to initiate an inter-Afghan peace process. Instead, it has almost instinctively turned to its old ally in the Hindu Kush - Saudi Arabia.
The US and Saudi Arabia went a long way in nurturing al-Qaeda and the Taliban in their infancy in the late 1980s and almost up to the second half of the 1990s. Al-Qaeda turned hostile in the early 1990s, but the US's dalliance with the Taliban continued up to the beginning of the first term of George W Bush as US president in 2000.
It is possible to say that Washington has no real choice at the present juncture but to turn to the Saudis for a helping hand. The Saudis precisely know the Taliban's anatomy, how its muscles and nerves interplay, where it is at its tender-most, where it tickles. The Saudis undoubtedly know how to engage the Taliban. Now, they can almost do what Pakistan, which had similar skills, was capable of doing until it began losing its grip and its self-confidence and became increasingly worn out. Islamabad tended to linger in the shade and watch as the Taliban began taking its performance seriously and didn't seem to need mentors.
Washington is also unsure to what degree Islamabad can be trusted with the central role in any such sensitive mission to finesse or harness the Taliban. All said, while President Asif Ali Zardari is a predictable figure who can be trusted to dance to just about any American tune, far too many imponderables remain in the post-Pervez Musharraf power structure in Islamabad for the US to be confident that it holds all the controlling strings.
Arguably, the Saudis, too, would have their own sub-plots in the Hindu Kush, given the al-Qaeda factor and al-Qaeda's unfinished business in the Middle East, but, on balance, Washington has to pitch to a mediator whom the Taliban leadership and mujahideen leaders like Hekmatyar and sundry other commanders will listen. A final clincher is that the Saudis have no dearth of resources to bankroll an intra-Afghan peace process and money is power in today's impoverished Afghanistan.
Beyond all these considerations, from the US perspective, a big gain out of the Saudi involvement would also be that Iran's efforts to build bridges with the Afghan resistance would be checkmated.
Afghanistan has always been in the cockpit of great power rivalry. The backdrop of US-Russia tensions is of great significance. On October 10, NATO defense ministers are scheduled to gather in Budapest, Hungary, and they are expected to take stock of the souring NATO-Russia ties. The US is advancing the idea of a NATO "defense plan" against Russia.
Any such plan invoking the centrality of Article 5 of the NATO charter regarding collective security for the newly inducted countries of Central Europe and the Balkans will need to be based on threat perceptions to the alliance emanating from post-Soviet Russia. In other words, the US is trying to propel NATO into an adversarial stance with regard to Russia on lines similar to the Cold War era.
But there is a catch. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is not peddling any pernicious ideology of "expansionism" threatening Western security. On the contrary, Russia is allowing NATO to transport its supplies for Afghanistan via its airspace and territory. Despite tensions in the Caucasus, Moscow has not called off such cooperation, especially involving NATO countries like Germany and France, which are skeptical about the US strategy of pitting the trans-Atlantic alliance against Russia. The US dislikes the prospect of Moscow using its equations with Germany or France within an overall NATO framework as a trump card in its relations with Washington.
Paradoxically, Washington will be relieved if Russia-NATO cooperation over Afghanistan altogether ceases. There is simply no other way that NATO can cast Russia as an adversary. But Russia is not obliging. Russian officials have recently alleged that Washington has prevailed on Karzai to freeze all cooperation with the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) on the vital front of combating drug trafficking. But Russia has failed to react and instead has began fortifying its own mechanism within the framework of CSTO (and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) to counter drug-trafficking.
The main challenge for NATO is that its dependence on Moscow for logistical support in the Afghan war cannot be terminated as long as there is uncertainty about the supply routes via Pakistan. Here the Saudis can be of help. Their involvement in the Afghan peace process will discourage the Taliban from seriously disrupting the supply routes through Pakistan.
From the US perspective, the immediate political advantage of the Saudi involvement will be two-fold: its impact on Pakistani public opinion and, secondly, in countering expanding Iranian influence within Afghanistan. The Saudi role will hopefully temper the stridency of "anti-Americanism" in Pakistan. The US can learn to live with the Pakistani people's "anti-Americanism" provided it remains at an acceptable level and in the realm of political rhetoric. This is where the Saudis can be of help, given their considerable influence on the Islamic parties in Pakistan, especially the Jammat-i-Islami, which makes political capital out of anti-American rhetoric, and a range of Pakistani leaders, both civilian and military.
Interestingly, CNN has quoted Saudi sources to the effect that "perceived Iranian expansionism is one of Saudi Arabia's biggest concerns" in Afghanistan, which is what motivates them to mediate a peace process involving the Taliban.
It is worth recalling that one of the attractions underlying the US-Saudi sponsorship of the Taliban in the early and mid-1990s was the movement's manifestly anti-Shi'ite stance and its infinite potential to be pitted against Iran on the geopolitical chessboard.
The Taliban had killed nine Iranian diplomats in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif in August 1998. The Iranian Foreign Ministry said at that time that "the consequences of the Taliban action is on the shoulders of the Taliban and their supporters". Then-Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani viewed the incident as part of "a very deep conspiracy to occupy Iran at its eastern borders".
Given the ebb and flow of the US-Saudi-Pakistani role in promoting the Taliban in the 1990s, Tehran and Moscow are bound to sit up and take note of the current trends. On the face of it, neither Tehran nor Moscow can take exception to the Saudi role in Afghanistan as that would run against the grain of their recent years of sustained efforts to foster relations with Saudi Arabia at the bilateral level. Tehran, in particular, will be keen to maintain the current semblance of cordiality in its complicated, multi-layered ties with Riyadh and will be averse to playing into the hands of the US to turn Afghanistan into yet another turf of Sunni-Shi'ite (Iran-Saudi) antipathy like Lebanon or Iraq.
But Iran and Russia will be deeply concerned about the US strategic designs. What will perturb the two countries most will be the US's continued plan to keep the Afghan peace process within a tiny, exclusive, charmed circle of friends and allies, which betrays Washington's resolve not to let Afghanistan go out of its tight grip any time in the foreseeable future. Clearly, they would take note that the US strategy, as it is unfolding, is only to make the war in Afghanistan "cost-effective" and not to cut and run.
A Pentagon official was recently quoted as suggesting that "[NATO] countries that have had a reluctance to contribute forces, in particular combat forces, may be able to take part in this mission through a financial contribution". As the official put it, there are "those who fight and those who write checks". The NATO meet in Budapest on Thursday will be discussing these issues of the alliance's mission in Afghanistan.
Apart from the cost-effective methods that ensure the war doesn't tax the US financially, the new head of the US Central Command, General David Petraeus, can also be expected to make the war more "efficient". He followed a somewhat similar strategy in Iraq with what he labeled a policy of "awakening" Sunni tribes. The strategy's Afghan variant, which Petraeus will now spearhead in his new capacity as the head of the Central Command, can be expected to involve hiring Pashtun mercenaries to fight the war so that Western casualties are reduced and NATO's continuance in Afghanistan doesn't get imperiled due to adverse public opinion in the West.
The strategy requires making inroads into the Taliban camp and playing havoc with its unity. In the US military jargon in Iraq, this was called "non-kinetic activities", which helped reverse the spiral of violence for the US troops. It may bring "new hope" to NATO's war in Afghanistan.
Evidently, Washington expects that a clever operator like Prince Turki acting with the blessing of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques will do a neat job in regard to splitting the Taliban and separating them from al-Qaeda. (Turki also served as the Saudi ambassador in Washington.) Turki's brief will contain an almost near-optimal mix of the godly and the worldly, which is useful for finessing a movement like the Taliban that crisscrosses religion and politics.
The Saudi involvement is a desperate gamble by the Bush administration in its dying months. In immediate terms, if Turki makes headway, Taliban violence against Western troops may diminish, which would give an impression that Afghanistan is finally coming right for the US.
But it will not remain so for long. Afghanistan is far more fragmented ethnically than Iraq. The Saudis with all their sovereign wealth funds out of petrodollars cannot bridge the hopelessly ruptured Afghan divides. At the very least, much time is needed to heal the deep wounds. Saudi involvement will almost certainly be resented by several Afghan groups, which viscerally oppose the Taliban, such as the Hazara Shi'ite groups. As it is, things were poised to come to a boil in 2009, which is an election year in Afghanistan.
Petraeus beat his war drum and claimed victory in Iraq, but that is not the final word. Political events are seldom what they seem. The heart of the matter is that Iran's cooperation made Petraeus' "victory" in Iraq possible. A peace process predicated on the exclusion of Iran and Russia - leave alone any "Islamization" of Afghanistan on Wahhabi lines - will not succeed.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.